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Kathleen Wynne's statement on Thursday about the Rob Ford saga, in which the Ontario Premier said her government might be prepared to intervene at the request of Toronto's city council, provided at least as many questions as answers. Here's an attempt to answer some of them:
Until Thursday, Ms. Wynne's Liberals did their best to stay out of the story altogether. And while the Mayor's comment that morning about his sexual appetites may have been shocking, it hardly seemed greater impetus for action than some of his other transgressions.
In fact, that impetus seems to have come more from the day previous, when a flurry of motions concerning how to deal with Mr. Ford came before council. One senior government official said the statement was partly a response to councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong's suggestion that he had pulled a motion calling for provincial action from the floor because he knew the province wasn't prepared to act, which the official said was a misreading of what Ms. Wynne had said to that point.
Other provincial sources said that the government was moved more by the general chaos, recognizing that council clearly had no idea what it could or couldn't expect from Queen's Park.
What Liberals don't say, but is fairly obvious, is that until recently they were worried about giving Mr. Ford a foil and a chance to play victim, while incurring the wrath of his supporters. By this point, they evidently believe he's sufficiently isolated that they can afford to take that risk.
WHAT'S NEEDED FROM COUNCIL?
Liberals say that for them to take action, a motion sent to the province would have to do more than simply argue that Mr. Ford is out of control or embarrassing the city. Rather, as per Ms. Wynne's statement, it would have to demonstrate that council "lack[s] the ability to function as a result of this matter."
It's important to note, however, that the Premier referred to the ability of council to function, rather than that of the municipal government. While there appears no danger of Mr. Ford's meltdown preventing the city from delivering services or paying its bills, a case that the Mayor's presence makes council too dysfunctional to carry on normal business might be enough.
As for the threshold of support needed for a motion to that effect to get serious consideration, Liberals seem to agree that a simple majority would not be enough. It would likely require something closer to unanimous support, save for the Mayor, his brother, and a handful of other councillors at most.
WHAT WOULD AN INTERVENTION LOOK LIKE?
Ms. Wynne's statement said that, if requested, the province would consider providing "new tools" to council to deal with the situation around Mr. Ford. In other words, rather than taking action directly against the Mayor, the province would pass legislation to allow the city to do so.
As for what that action might be, provincial Liberals seem more open to the prospect of suspending Mr. Ford than of removing him from office altogether.
As for how that could be enabled, there would be a couple of options. The province could amend the City of Toronto Act, but then whatever mechanism was made part of the legislation could be abused in future. So a likelier route would seem to be some manner of standalone bill specific to the current situation.
WOULD ALL-PARTY SUPPORT REALLY BE NEEDED FOR AN INTERVENTION?
The widespread interpretation of Ms. Wynne's statement was that the minority government would only proceed with action if both the opposition Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats agreed to go along with it.
The senior official stressed that's not necessarily the case; while the Premier would seek unanimous consent for any bill to deal with Mr. Ford's situation, failure to get it would not necessarily cause her to abandon the issue. So it's conceivable that it could just be passed with support from the Liberals and the NDP, and not the party with which the Mayor is most closely aligned.
Were Tim Hudak's PCs to strongly oppose the bill, however, it would take a very long time to get through the legislature. That could be enough to cause the Liberals to drop the issue, and simply blame the Tories for keeping Mr. Ford in office. But there is some outside chance that the Mayor could wind up bogging down a second level of government.
WHAT ABOUT THE PRECEDENT?
One of the better reasons for the Liberals to stay out of this was the danger of setting a dangerous standard. If councils overwhelmingly turning on a mayor and declaring themselves dysfunctional is enough to have him or her suspended or punted from office, Ontario could wind up with a strange sort of recall system.
There could also be some problematic optics in the short term, since London, Ont., Mayor Joe Fontana has been charged with fraud – and he still remains in office.
Regarding that comparison, Liberals say they have received no requests from London's council along the lines of what they might get from Toronto's. And when it comes to broader messages, Ms. Wynne's advisers now argue that Mr. Ford has reached a point at which any legislation would be recognized as a unique reaction to a special case.